Supported in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, CAEI is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition about the experience of Chinese in America to date. According to the exhibition prospectus, CAEI “immerses visitors in a broad sweep of history, presenting key protagonists and signal events, while also creating compelling spaces that present stories and micro-histories and other layers of objects, documents, and media for discovery.” Educational curriculum designed to meet national content standards is included. As such, CAEI will elevate the quality of the visitor experience at CHSA to an international standard that will make us all proud.
Part I: US and China, 1738-1905
George Washington orders his china ware from China. Asa Whitney imagined a fast route to China with a railroad that stretched from ocean to ocean. Yung Wing brought students from China to study in the United States. This opening part of our exhibit explores such early encounters; involving objects, aspirations, and people.
Part II: Machinery of Exclusion: 1882-1943
Congress passed two immigration laws in 1882. One levied a head tax on every immigrant. The other singled out Chinese applicants for restricted admission and banned naturalized citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act technically lasted until 1943, but didn’t effectively end until 1965, causing decades of hardships and heartache.
Chinese Exclusion helped forge America’s system of border controls. It created categories of illegal immigration and “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” And it established the principle of race-based immigration that Congress amplified through subsequent laws.
Part III: Journeys in America, 1882-Present
Chinese Americans challenged Exclusion and discrimination even while they struggled to build lives for themselves in the US and supported relatives in China. Campaigns to repeal Exclusion finally succeeded during WWII when the US and China were allies. One of the enduring impacts of the many decades of Exclusion and ineligibility for citizenship has been the perception of Chinese Americans as perpetual foreigners. Over years of cold and hot wars in Asia, movements for social change, and substantial new waves of immigration, early Chinese immigrant descendants and newcomers have sought to define their identities and rights as Americans, and challenge persisting barriers and stereotypes.
What Makes an American?
Generations of Chinese Americans have shown creativity, resourcefulness, and fortitude in helping to forge the composite America that Frederick Douglass once imagined. Insisting on the freedom to belong, they helped shape what it means to be American.